BBC Scotland and a question of bias

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by G.A.Ponsonby

It was one of last week’s most surprising headlines and it raised eyebrows amongst those of us who have been following the political output from BBC Scotland this last 24 months.  The team at Pacific Quay were facing allegations of political bias.

Hopes of a serious analysis of the goings on at the BBC’s Scottish HQ were dashed though when it transpired the accusations had been levelled by Labour election hopeful David Whitton.

Mr Whitton, a former Daily Record editor and STV producer, was complaining about Alex Salmond’s inclusion as a panellist on the BBC’s Question Time programme.  This, according to the Labour Party in Scotland, was evidence of bias.

The SNP leader was joined on the panel by representatives of the other main parties; the Tories, LibDems and Labour.  According to Whitton the SNP ought to have been excluded from the show.  The UK audience, including those of the constituency in which Mr Whitton is standing, should have been presented with the views of just the three London parties – balance, Labour style.

Mr Whitton’s accusation would have been funny had it not been made at a time when BBC Scotland are currently displaying a breathtaking disregard for balance in their coverage of the Holyrood campaign.

It’s now virtually impossible to read, listen to or view daily election coverage from BBC Scotland without seeing more examples of the increasingly unsubtle attempts at steering the electorate away from the SNP.

Yesterday’s Shereen Nanjiani radio show opened with a quick ‘discussion’ on the Scottish election.  The all too brief analysis focused on a Scotland on Sunday headline that highlighted the paper’s new opinion poll.  The studio discussion was remarkable for one thing; nobody mentioned the party who, according to the poll, was now in front in the race for Holyrood.

Instead of informing listeners that the SNP had overtaken Labour, who only three weeks ago had a double digit lead, the studio panel claimed that the poll showed that the SNP government had ‘made little difference’ to Scotland since being elected in 2007.  Uninformed listeners would have been forgiven for thinking the SNP were trailing in the poll.

On ‘The Politics Show’ later that afternoon, when pushed by the increasingly impressive Isobel Fraser, Brian Taylor was keen to urge a ‘couple of notes of caution’ on the poll outcome, suggesting that the SNP manifesto launch may have influenced respondents.

Now there’s nothing wrong with urging caution on opinion polls, in fact it is entirely appropriate.  However, the acknowledgement that a manifesto launch and resultant coverage may influence poll respondents raises the question of why BBC Scotland decided to commission a poll a week earlier that sought to determine the most popular campaign policies – when the SNP had yet to publish their own manifesto.

The BBC poll provided temporary relief for a Labour party struggling with a limp campaign and the corporation were guilty of creating news rather than reporting it.

One need only to look to newspaper headlines and public statements from the Labour Party to see how this poll continues to influence the campaign narrative.  There is a case for an inquiry into the decision to commission this poll and an assurance that taxpayer’s money is never abused in this manner again.

Questions surely need to be put to the head of BBC Scotland Ken MacQuarrie and the relevant department heads involved in the decision to commission this poll.

The publication of the poll was followed by an announcement that the head of news and current affairs Atholl Duncan is to move on after the Scottish election.  This was welcome, however it was followed by news that John Boothman would replace him in the role.  Mr Boothman is a former Labour activist and the partner of former Labour MSP Susan Deacon.

There are other less blatant manifestations of what many now feel is institutionalised political corruption at the heart of BBC Scotland.  Listen to Radio Scotland bulletins listing all of the main parties plans for that day’s campaign and you’ll find more often than not Labour are mentioned first, with the SNP left to last.

Read online articles on the BBC website and you will regularly see the same practice adopted.

The tea time news programme Reporting Scotland also manages a regular ‘coincidental’ synergy with Labour Party manifesto pledges, as was evidenced on the day they chose to focus on knife crime and ‘happened’ to stop a person who knew a victim of knife crime for an interview.

On the day that Scotland’s positive employment figures were released Reporting Scotland’s outside broadcast team found itself filming next to a building site that had been closed down and speaking to an unfortunate builder who had lost his job, thus tempering the good news.

It’s worth pointing out an interesting occurrence at the SNP manifesto launch last week.  Alex Salmond made reference to a large inward investment soon to be announced but BBC Scotland’s business editor Douglas Fraser made no attempt at seeking further information, indeed Mr Fraser sat at the back of the room well away from the other journalists whilst colleague Brian Taylor sat regularly shaking his head throughout.

Finally don’t be surprised over the next few days to see a certain Buckfast tonic wine make an appearance on BBC Scotland as it did on Friday when Radio Scotland named the product in a news report on a violent assault.  The caffeinated product is the alcoholic fall-guy currently underpinning Labour’s plan to tackle Scotland’s alcohol problem and Labour’s Richard Baker announced at the weekend that he intends to highlight the ‘problem’ the drink causes.

David Whitton was perhaps closer to the truth than he realised when he attacked the BBC.  I wonder therefore if he will support calls for an inquiry into the organisation he believes is guilty of political bias.{jcomments on}